Progress is often defined by expectation.
If there’s one true barometer of how far Northwestern sports has progressed in the past few years, it’s this:
The Northwestern Basketball Fan Meme went from Guy Reading A Book During The NIT to Kid Crying During The NCAA's.— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) March 18, 2017
We're moving up. pic.twitter.com/b9n7EmQ4aC
Obviously, there are other indicators too: This team set program records in wins (24), NCAA tournament appearances (1) and won the most conference games any Northwestern squad can boast since the Great Depression. Chris Collins is a Naismith Men’s Coach of the Year finalist and, in his first four years, already has the fourth most wins in program history. The best team this school has ever had is returning 12 of 14 players and has a four-star guard in Anthony Gaines on the way.
But beyond all the numbers and accolades, this is a team with fight. This team is fun. It proved this fact yesterday in, after being utterly out-classed in as lethargic a first half of basketball you’ll see, clawing back to outscore the No. 1 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs 53-41 in the second and evoking impassioned reactions like this from Wildcat fans across the nation:
Great job by the director calling for the zoom in on the crying Northwestern kid pic.twitter.com/eTWK1v9034— SportAnding (@SportAnding) March 18, 2017
But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Think back to a little over a year ago. Tampa, Florida. Raymond James Stadium. New Year’s Day, 2016... A day that will live in infamy. You know where I’m going with this.
Northwestern football (I’m switching sports on you but bear with me) was ranked No. 13 in the country, coming off a 10-2 regular season and set to take on No. 23 Tennessee. Going into the game, the narrative being pushed was that this was one of the greatest Northwestern teams to ever put on pads, at least on the defensive end, and with good reason. Even if they lost, the Wildcat’s would’ve already tied the program record for wins in a season (10) and had made an appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl, far exceeding pre-season expectations.
Well, without going into excruciating detail, they got fleeced. And it looked like this was the direction the Gonzaga game was heading yesterday too. Northwestern trailed 38-20 at the half and, quite frankly, looked like a high school team running with the Zags.
That just about sums it up.
We were all dead inside coming out of that first half because we had seen it all before. You don’t play the games for moral victories, but as the second half began, I was already beginning to pen a piece urging the Northwestern faithful to not be discouraged by this evisceration. We’d seen this before, and there was much to look forward to.
Even with Northwestern’s near-miracle comeback, the only positive takeaways from this game remain of the moral variety. They scrapped. They fought. But, at the end of the day, they lost. It was a loss to be proud of, but a loss nevertheless. Perhaps there’s a greater takeaway, though:
Progress is often defined by expectation.
All jokes aside, the emotion pouring out from Athletic Director Jim Phillips’ son as blown call after blown call (you know it’s kinda true) doomed the Wildcats is a definitive sign of the program’s progress. People care about Northwestern basketball again. According to Chicago Business, as of Jan. 24, group ticket sales and single-game ticket sales were up substantially from last season and average ticket sales have been on the rise for the past decade. Jim Nantz called Welsh-Ryan arena, “one of the top 5 atmospheres I've ever been around in sports.” That same arena is undergoing a $110 million renovation next year and the unveiling of a brand new, state of the art athletic facility on campus is fervently anticipated.
Northwestern athletics are no longer defined by geeky fans so disinterested with the on-court product that they choose to cram in some leisure reading in the student’s section instead of watching the game. Northwestern scraps. Northwestern fights. Its fans are raucous and passionate. Hell, they’ll wail and cry to the delight of all of the Internet in the face of poor refereeing, and have no shame in doing it.
And even in defeat, that’s a beautiful thing.